The Witch Elm

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 01 Apr 2019

Member Reviews

The Mistress of Suspense does it again - great characters, great plot and a page turner from start to finish
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Toby has led a charmed life, from his childhood spent at the family home, to his career and love life.  He really has it all.   One random act of violence later, and his circumstances have changed dramatically.  As his life spirals our of his control, Toby agrees to stay with a terminally ill uncle at the Ivy House.  While the adults are discussing the future of the familial residence, the children discover a well-hidden secret that threatens to rock the foundations of Toby's existence.
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This standalone novel will please fans of French's Dublin Murder Squad and also readers who are new to her work. A first buy for most collections.
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I wanted to read The Witch Elm even before I knew what it was about. At first, I assumed it was another Dublin Murder Squad, in which case, fuck yeah. But then the title alone had me wondering if this wasn’t Tana French making a foray into historical fiction. Like, was she going to solve “Who Put Bella in the Wytch Elm”? Because if there’s anyone who should be writing period procedural drama, it should be Tana French. I got so hyped that I was kind of sad to learn that, no, this wasn’t Tana French solving the mystery of “Bella in the Wytch Elm”, in fact, the only thing this novel has in common with the mystery of Bella is that it involves human remains discovered inside a witch elm. That’s it. Nothing else. The action is all in modern day Ireland, not 1940s England. No awesomely detailed 1940s England-during-wartime police procedural drama like Foyle’s War meets True Detective masterminded by Tana French for me. Sigh. That would be so goddamn amazing, though.

The Witch Elm is a standalone book - it’s not a part of the Dublin Murder Squad series. Though the book is in the same general style, it doesn’t center around the police or detectives. Instead of having a member of the Gardaí  be our hero, our hero is an average Joe, and the police are viewed entirely from a civilian perspective.

Our protagonist is Toby Hennessey, a happy-go-lucky ultra-privileged upper-class-twit-of-the-year who has always had everything work out great for him. He’s from a rich family, he’s got a great girlfriend, friends, a job in PR, a fancy car...everything’s coming up Toby!

Until he’s brutally beaten by two burglars in his own apartment. The beating leaves Toby far from his normal self - he’s left with a TBI that causes left-side weakness, makes it hard to concentrate or follow instructions and leaves him with gaps in his memory. So far this is the only book I’ve read that actually shows the reality of what happens to a person when they’re given a hard enough blow to the head to render them unconscious. Throughout I was actually kind of worried that Tana French herself, or someone close to her, may have experienced something like this...That or her research skills are next level. Either way, there’s no Tintin-esque tap-on-the-head , perfectly fine ten minutes bullshit here. Toby spends the whole book recovering slowly from his injuries, and even in the end, he doesn’t return 100% to his old self. TBIs don’t just come and go, people.

Anyway - thanks to Ireland’s very liberal sick-leave laws, Toby is able to spend months - months! - off work to recover. While he’s enjoying his life in a nation that doesn’t automatically fire it’s workers for not showing up to work, TBI or no, Toby learns from his cousins that his uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer. Toby is an only child, and from one of those weird families where the various aunts, uncles and cousins are so close to one another they’re almost like siblings. I’m only vaguely aware of my cousins’ existence, which is fine with me. Uncle Hugo lives in the grandparents’ house, called Ivy House, and, growing up, Toby and his two cousins, also only children, Leon and Susanna, spent their summers living at Ivy House while their parents went off on vacation. Now that Hugo only has a couple of months to live, Toby and his girlfriend, Melissa, move into Ivy House to help him out.

The whole Hennessey clan regularly converges on Ivy House to spend more time with Hugo before he dies. At one such gathering, one of Susanna’s children discovers a skull inside of the witch elm  in the garden. The family promptly freaks out. How is there a skull inside the tree in the garden? How did it get there, is it old, is it recent, what…? The police get involved and it’s discovered that the skull belonged to one of Toby, Susanna and Leon’s old classmates, who disappeared one summer ten years ago. At the time, everyone believed he’d committed suicide via cliff dive, so how is his skeleton inside a witch elm in Uncle Hugo’s garden?

I don’t want to go more in-depth than that for plot summary, because mysteries are not the sort of books you want to spoil for other people. I, of course, got inpatient when the mystery wasn’t solved 43 minutes into the book, so I skipped ahead. This might be another reason why I don’t really read mysteries: slow reader + general impatience + short attention span = let’s flip to the back and find out. But if mysteries are your jam, you don’t want this spoiled for you, because it’s awesome. Mostly because Tana French’s writing style is super tense, detailed and atmospheric. But also because she’s an expert at writing from the point of view of characters who are kind of assholes, but aren’t entirely aware of the extent of their assholery. Eventually you start to hate the protagonist a bit, but also, weirdly feel sorry for them, and hope things will work out alright. French’s characters are very flawed and feel very, very real. Toby is a bit of a shitbird, and the whole novel is him coming to the slow realization that he is, indeed, a shitbird, but it’s all done in the best way possible. You feel bad for him, while at the same time recognizing that, yeah, he was a bit of a douche, but he’s doing his best to become someone who is not a douche. Which, uh...yay?

Either way: if you like mysteries, especially Irish mysteries or if you’re fond of Tana French’s books (as I am), then read The Witch Elm. Or at the very least check out the Dublin Murder Squad books, they’re great.
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First of all, thank you to NetGalley and Viking for access to the eARC in exchange for an honest review. I feel like I've been waiting for a new Tana French novel FOREVER!

This is a stand-alone, not part of French's Dublin Murder Squad series., but, in my opinion, just as suspenseful and well-plotted. When we meet the principle character, Toby, he is a rather happy-go-lucky young man, of privileged background, out for a night with male friends.. Late that same night, he is awakened to sounds of someone in his apartment. When Toby confronts  the intruders, he is badly beaten, suffering a head injury that leaves him with gaps in his memory as well as physical symptoms. When released from the hospital, Toby is unable to feel safe in his apartment and eventually goes, with his supportive girlfriend, to stay with his uncle Hugo, who has been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. During a family gathering, a skull is discovered on the property, and during the subsequent investigation, Toby find himself questioning whether he's the person he always thought he was, as well as whether his family members are as he'd always seen them, or different altogether from his assumptions. Highly recommended!
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As is the case with most Tana French books, I could not put this one down! This is the first of her books where I hated the main character, but I think that’s what she was going for and it really added to the mystery. There’s a great unreliable narrator thing going on here and I loved the family dynamic. I was guessing until the very end.
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A new book from Tana French is always cause for celebration for me. The Witch Elm isn't a Dublin Murder Squad book, which was slightly disappointing (I love the way a tangential character from a previous book becomes the protagonist in another), but I tried to go in with an open mind. It's hard to summarize the plot without spoiling the whole thing. The story centers on Toby, a man in his late twenties who has just been through a bit of trouble at work and goes out for drinks with friends. He wakes to find his apartment being burgled and is beaten almost to death. As he recovers from his injuries, including a head injury that causes him some memory issues, Toby ends up going to stay at his family home with uncle Hugo, who is dying of brain cancer. While at one of the extended family's big Sunday lunches, a child turns up a human skull in the garden and the investigation begins.

I had a hard time getting into the story at first and only when Toby arrives at the Ivy House did it catch my attention. Toby is obviously a bit of an unreliable narrator because of his brain injury, but so is every other character, from the family members to the detectives. The story twists and turns like French's other work, and I found myself dreading finding out what really happened, especially as Toby's paranoia increases. The narrative shifts bit by bit, depending on whose version of the story we're getting, and while I suspected a few things that turned out to be true, there were lots of little surprises. I'm unsettled and unsatisfied by the ending, but I'm still thinking about it, so I guess that's a success. I read this straight through on a rainy Saturday.
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When I got this, courtesy of NetGalley, I wondered if I would be disappointed that it wasn’t another Dublin Murder Squad book; and I assumed from the title that this would be a bit of a supernatural ghost story — going further into the territory that French explored in The Secret Place.

I don’t want to spoil the fun by revealing too much, so I’ll say that the title and the tree itself play beautifully into the territory that French explores: the things we see, don’t see, and misinterpret, even when they’re right in front of us. Not that that’s the only theme being explored here: The Witch Elm is likewise about ability and disability, and how they constitute our sense of self, and of others. It is as carefully plotted as fine lace — and though some developments are telegraphed from far off, French’s incisiveness still caught me off guard (to my complete delight).

I’m not at all sorry that this isn’t a DMS book — the shift into standalone territory means that some of the ideas and questions that I have come to think of as classic Tana French are newly illuminated, in ways that feel as fresh as ever. I’m already looking forward to rereading.
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I was so excited to hear Tana French's latest book is finally out, yet also extremely disappointed when I found out it wouldn't be a Dublin Murder Squad novel. I was afraid that there was no way I would like anything else of hers as much. Well, I am so happy to have proven myself wrong! The Witch Elm is probably one of French's best novels to date. It is still a mystery, only we're getting the story from the suspect's point of view. It's actually interesting to see one of her novels written from an alternate point of view and to see her detectives through the eyes of the other characters.

What really makes this book so unique and so original is that the main character is recovering from a severe head injury and he can't trust his memory - he can't even think properly half the time. It's clever that Tana French uses such an unreliable narrator to tell the story, but it's absolutely brilliant that also she made practically every other character around him unreliable too (his cousins can't be trusted, his uncle is dying of a brain tumor, and his girlfriend is a passive sort from a dysfunctional family). 

The book is a little long, and the main story (the murder investigation) doesn't really start to develop until about 30% in, but it's definitely worth sticking with it. The story works and the novel is solid. I personally didn't like the way the book ended, but I actually think that made it a little more interesting - it stayed with me a little longer because I felt so unsettled at the end. I'm happy to say that Tana French doesn't disappoint, Dublin Murder Squad or not.
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Tana French is pretty hit or miss for me, but this one was definitely a hit! There is a lot more going on here than a simple murder mystery. The narrator suffers a brain injury early in the story that messes with his memory, and one of the other main characters has terminal brain cancer. So, while the mystery itself is good, the story also explores memory and personality and what makes someone who they are. Highly recommend!
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I am not sure how much I can say about this one without giving away details that I shouldn't! It is very different from the author's other books, but absolutely engaging. This is the story of Toby, who is a charming and yet not a particularly likeable guy in the beginning. After suffering a break-in at his apartment, he ends up living with his uncle at the family home. During a family event, one of the children--Toby's nephew--discovers a skull in the backyard and a mystery/investigation ensues. This is the kind of story that causes you to question how well you know your family well you know yourself. 

I have to say I did not see the ending coming, and I kept guessing (incorrectly) as to what had happen. The author is absolutely amazing at giving you details that make you think one thing and then a final piece falls into place that changes the whole thing. Incredible. 

I will say that the beginning takes time to get going, but knowing the author's other works, I knew it would be worth it. And it was!
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Fantastic read! French steps out of her usual police mysteries and takes on a family drama. The Hennesey's family home, Ivy House, holds a secret that brings three cousins together, and against each other at the same time. French is able to put you in the dark setting of the house that seems to close in on you the longer you stay in the story.
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The Witch Elm continues Tana French's run of spell-binding, heart-stopping, superlative fiction.  Toby Hennessy is a young public relations exec for a up and coming art gallery in Dublin, Ireland.  He's got it all - handsome, great job, wonderful girlfriend, loyal friends - Toby is one lucky guy.  That is until he wakes to the sound of people in his apartment and is beaten almost to death when he tries to confront them.  His injuries include a concussion that has lasting effects especially on his memory.  There are big gaps in his memories of the night he was attacked as well as holes in all his memories.  Shortly into Toby's recovery, his favorite uncle, Hugo,  is diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.  Toby and his girlfriend, Melissa,  move out to Ivy House, the sprawling family home in the suburbs to help care for his uncle. When his niece and nephew turn up a human skull during a family gathering, Toby, his uncle, and his cousins are forced to relive a past that had seemed idyllic to Toby but now - maybe not so much.  How can a person with gaping holes in his memory recall the events of a summer years before?  As Toby struggles to make sense of the differences between what he perceives and the vague pictures his memory provides, he finds that life as he knows it may not be the life he lived.

I couldn't put this book down.  As usual, Tana French's writing is peppered with local slang and references to popular culture.  She's a master at building suspense and spinning a story that's not at all what you'd expect.  I predict this will be another bestseller - adult readers of all genres will thoroughly enjoy reading this, and reading it again!
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The Witch Elm is Tana French's first standalone novel, although technically each of her previous novels was only tangentially related through the "Dublin Murder Squad," and do not suffer from being read out of order. Because this is her first non-detective novel, I was intrigued to see how it would pan out. Tana French is a masterful crime novelist, so how would she fare writing from the perspective of someone outside of the police? The answer is: refreshingly well.

Tana French does not write unputdownable, edge-of-your-seat suspense novels. She writes carefully crafted tales woven with characters that are so dimensional and so believable that you have to take your time with reading her books in order to fully live in her world and absorb all the details. There are no wild plot twists that drag you in so that you have to know how it will turn out, regardless of whether the rest of the book is any good. The rest of the book is so good that it does not matter who did it in the end. What matters is the characters you've gotten to know along the way and the way their relationships with each other unfold. The one thing Tana French does truly better than anyone else is just that: relationships. Family and friends are all intricate and full of personality. Her characters are all at turns unlikable and sympathetic. You feel you've gotten to know them by the end of the book, and that is what makes it hard to put the book down.

The Witch Elm is, in every way, a Tana French novel. She hasn't lost any of her magic with the absence of the Murder Squad, and I look forward to what she comes out with next.
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Not my favorite but still excellent. I couldn't wait to reach the end to see if we'd learn the whole story. As always, wonderful writing, description. Terrifically moody. Tana French is one of the only authors I personally pre-order for me. She has many fans at my library too!
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Not my favorite Tana French book.  The pacing on this was off for me, it was just so, so slow. Took me 5 days to finish this which is an eternity for me.  In the end it was a decent story but it just seemed filled with so much unnecessary stuff that made it drag.
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It pains me to give this book such a low rating, because I love Tana French and the Dublin Murder Squad mysteries so very much. However, it was difficult for me to get through this standalone. The plot was painfully slow-moving. I couldn't figure out where it was going for the longest time. The characters were extremely unlikable. This was a very unpleasant surprise for me because I think French is so gifted at creating three dimensional characters who, even if they are unlikable, are at least interesting and dynamic. The overall tone was so unceasingly gloomy that I felt as though I was being sucked into a dark and depressing state of mind, each and every time I picked up the book! It was definitely a struggle to get through, and I don't think I've ever said that about a Tana French novel before.

Thank you to Netgalley for the opportunity to read an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
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3.5 stars. First off, this was not my favorite Tana French book. It was, of course, well written and the characters well developed. Toby, the main character, went from basically being a rather smug, well off, everything going great in his job, love life, etc., to being a wreck, both emotionally and physically. The story itself was good but much of it was told through long-winded conversations between characters and Toby’s endless self analysis and inner dialogues. This all made for a slow read of an interesting enough murder mystery and a clueless young man’s deterioration, but it was just too long and drawn out.
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I have LOVED Tana French’s series of books featuring various characters from the Dublin Murder Squad, so when Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley provided me with the opportunity to read The Witch Elm  in return for my honest review, I was ecstatic. It is a standalone novel, unrelated to the Dublin Murder Squad, so while I would have enjoyed seeing more of Antoinette Conway, Stephen Moran, and others, I REALLY enjoyed getting to know a whole new cast of characters.

The central character is Toby Hennessey, a millennial who has a great job doing PR for an art gallery, an amazing girlfriend named Melissa, and good friends including Sean and Declan. He also has a close family including his Uncle Hugo and cousins Susanna and Leon, all of whom figure prominently in the story. And one of the reasons I LOVE Tana French's books is that I truly feel I KNOW these people (yes, for me they are people, not characters), and I care about them.

Toby is a happy-go-lucky guy leading a seemingly charmed life in Dublin, and he seems fairly self-aware as he notes   “Me, cheerful oblivious Labrador of a guy, lolloping happily along with the flow…” His insight into his own good fortune is reflected in his view of his longtime friend Declan: “not that I was some charismatic leader type, but I was always effortlessly part of the cool crowd, invited to everything, secure enough in my footing that Dec had been accepted into the fold in spite of his accent and his glasses and his atrocious rugby skills and the chip on his shoulder, simply because he was my friend.”

As the story begins, Toby seems to have (as usual, according to family and friends) charmed his way out of what could have been an extremely bad situation at work. To celebrate, he and Sean and Dec  go out for (way too many) drinks, then Toby heads for home. French’s descriptions of place are as effective as those of character, shown when Toby returns to his apartment building in Dublin, described as  “the outside was sourly utilitarian and the corridors had the hallucinatory, liminal vibe of an airport hotel.” That night, Toby’s place is burglarized by two men who rob him,  beat him savagely, and leave him for dead.

Following a lengthy hospital stay, Toby is struggling to recover both physically and mentally when his cousins Leon and Susanna encourage him to move in with their Uncle Hugo, who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is determined to live out his days at the family’s ancestral home. As Toby and Melissa settle in with Hugo, police detectives begin an investigation into a crime that occurred on the property ten or so years ago, back around the time Toby, Leon, and Susanna were all spending their entire summers at the house with Uncle Hugo.  

Toby is having enough trouble just learning to adjust to his new reality of life following a traumatic brain injury, and he is aware he isn’t doing that well as he tries to present himself as a cooperative person to the detectives who are coming around the house – a LOT: “I was having trouble struggling up out of the Xanax, viscous fog dragging at my mind and my limbs, and the cops prowling the garden like a pack of feral dogs in the corner of my eye were more than I could handle.”

Toby’s memory problems compound his confusion about events from ten years earlier, and his drug use both then and now adds to the lack of clarity he has about either his past or his new reality. He becomes well aware that not only is he significantly changed as a result of his injury, he really doesn’t seem to have a solid grip on the reality of his past OR the fundamental question of what kind of person he has become.

The language is frequently colloquial, and I was grateful for my online dictionary more than once (gurning, numinous, and sgraffitoed, for example). Suspenseful, full of interesting people and enough plot twists and surprises to keep my husband asking “What’s wrong?” as I repeatedly voiced exclamations such as “Oh, no!” while I was reading. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened, and yet I didn’t want it to end. It is one of my favorite books of the year, for sure. Five stars.
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Can the marvelous Tana French write a compelling book even if it does not involve the Dublin murder squad? The answer, at least for this reader, is no, not really. There is nothing exactly wrong with the story of Toby, who, in the aftermath of a devastating assault, moves into the evocative Ivy House where he summered as a child to take care of his dying uncle, and in the hands of another writer this would have been a perfectly respectable little three-star read that I didn't have vague feelings of disappointment about after finishing. But I know how good French can be and I know how devastated I've been in the past after reading her books, and this just didn't get there for me. Although her writing is just as gorgeous and heady as ever, the story limps and drags through the Ivy House, and once the secret in the elm tree is discovered, Toby's meandering attempts to glean clues about it have got absolutely nothing on the sharp-edged skill of her past detectives. When the detectives in this novel eventually show up, they just made me despondent that I wasn't reading the book from their perspective instead of Toby's, who is exactly the type of unreliable narrator I can't stand. I did enjoy the dramatic stuff right before the ending and in no world would I ever, ever give up on reading French because she's one of the best ever, but this is definitely not  definitely not her usual caliber of effortlessly brilliant and heart-breaking.
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